“The day I break off my long-term relationship with alcohol is one without fanfare. It happens to be January but it’s not the first day of a new year and the decision lacks the shiny newness of a true resolution. It doesn’t arrive on the heels of a rock bottom moment. When I wake up, I’m not spooning the toilet bowl or on the floor of a holding cell. Even my hangover that morning is understated, a faint pulsing at my temples that fades within an hour’s time, rather than the kind that normally has me swearing off drinking for good.
On the surface, the decision appears both swift and decisive. Yesterday, I was a card-carrying member of the Wine Mom Club. Today, a newly sober 30-year-old with few additional hobbies. But despite how sure I seem, the reality is that falling out of love with alcohol has been a slow and messy breakup with resentments on both sides.
My love affair with alcohol began the year I turned 18, during the fall of my freshman year of college. In high school, I’d been a good girl, a rule follower who avoided parties in favor of Friday nights spent playing board games with friends. But college, particularly college in a new city, was a whole different speed. Within days of my arrival on campus, two things became clear: 1) I needed to find cool friends, and 2) I had to appear more confident than I actually felt.
Booze, it turned out, helped me accomplish both of those goals. Within a few minutes of hitting my bloodstream, the alcohol would render me infinitely more fun and interesting, while dialing down any lingering self-consciousness. It smoothed over my rough edges and airbrushed my anxiety, replacing the usual me with a prettier, happier, and more charming version of myself. I was smitten.
Throughout my college years, I drank the way everyone else did: as a sport, a pastime, a rite of passage. Showing up to a 10 a.m. class still slightly buzzed was de rigueur. Waking up to find you’d left your wallet, cell phone, and digital camera in the back of a cab was expected behavior. Sometimes I was the drunkest person in attendance and other times, that title was bestowed upon another member of my friend group. The unspoken rules were simple: as long as our drinking mirrored one another’s, we were all fine.
My mid-twenties ushered in more of the same, interspersed with all the typical milestones of young adulthood. I married my high school sweetheart. We started our careers, and blended two apartment’s worth of rickety IKEA furniture into a house with both of our names on the deed. We welcomed our first baby and then, a year later, another. I was growing up in all the expected ways and, over time, my relationship with alcohol began to mature, too.
Or at least that’s how it felt. It had been years since I’d found myself in a seedy bar slugging back shots at 2 a.m. Now I drank moderately priced red wine blends in the comfort of my suburban home before tucking myself into bed at 10:30. It was a much quieter kind of addiction, but there was an undercurrent of desperation that had never been there before. I was drinking to take the edge off the hardest experience I’d ever encountered: motherhood.
Continuing a relationship with alcohol alongside motherhood proved to be easier than I expected. When my sons were infants, I pumped breastmilk in the afternoon so I could drink as much as I wanted at night. While trick or treating with my kids, I sipped a travel mug full of wine as we pushed the double stroller between houses. Several days a week, I cut the crusts off sandwiches and built block towers with the ghost of a hangover hovering above me. And every so often, I told myself I would stop, or at the very least slowdown. For a while, I’d experience success; limiting my drinking to weekends, and making sure to stop after two drinks. But eventually, two-weekend drinks would turn into three or four weeknight drinks, and I’d begin stacking up the irrefutable evidence against my having a true problem. I had never gotten into legal trouble for my drinking. I didn’t drink before 5 p.m. I almost never drank alone. No one had ever raised my drinking as a cause for concern. What’s more, I was running a household and caring for two young kids. Who could judge me for needing a couple of glasses of wine to take the edge off at night?
In the midst of my drinking, however, life was starting to fall into place. As women often do, I was undergoing the metamorphosis that comes with shedding the insecurities of one’s twenties and embracing the self-assurance that’s earned with age. I was settling into my role as a mother, weeding out unhealthy relationships, and doing the hard, uncomfortable work of improving the worthwhile ones. I was getting closer to the person I wanted to become and dispensing of my hang-ups and bad habits one at a time. But more and more, I began to feel alcohol was a puzzle piece I couldn’t seem to fit into the picture of the life I wanted for myself.
The day I decide to stop drinking falls in the middle of a ski trip with my husband’s siblings and their spouses. All of them are moderate-to-heavy drinkers who start in on the IPAs before we hit the slopes in the morning. When the cabernet makes its way to me at the dinner table that night, I decline with all the false casualness I can muster. We are a family of drinkers—it’s just what we do. Who will I be to them without that common bond? ‘I’m good for right now,’ I say, and I do mean NOW, reminding myself I haven’t agreed to anything beyond this moment. I still reserve the right to change my mind.
At first, I miss alcohol in the way one misses a former love, the kind who isn’t the right fit but seems much more desirable once he’s no longer an option. I’m able to put it out of my mind for the majority of my waking hours, busying myself with motherhood and the endless parade of domestic tasks that keep our household afloat. Most of the time, the choice makes sense to me. Staying sober seems both reasonable and possible. But the longing catches me off guard in the most unexpected moments, a burst of white-hot panic that flares in my chest without warning. It happens as I stand at the cutting board, slicing vegetables for dinner, and reach for the phantom wine glass on the counter. It settles over me as I roast marshmallows with my kids on our annual camping trip, and long for the warm glow of the sangria that’s usually in my opposite hand.
In those moments, I miss the romance a life with alcohol had promised me: the vision of myself sipping Baileys in front of a fireplace at a ski lodge, a chilled glass of white wine on the back deck during a late-summer dinner. I miss the woman I thought I would be with a drink in her hand, the shinier, happier version of myself I first stumbled upon when my romance with alcohol was still new. I know this woman is nothing more than a mirage, a trick of the mind I can convince myself is real with enough alcohol in my system. Still, understanding all of this is a figment of my imagination doesn’t make me miss it any less.
Without the right term for it, my designation as a non-drinker feels clumsy and awkward. I don’t consider myself to be an alcoholic, and rather than commendable, my choice to stop drinking feels odd to many people. Drinking, after all, is just what everyone does. Without life-or-death stakes, choosing an existence without booze just seems strange, a fate any reasonable person would avoid if possible.
I’m not sure if I’m allowed to use the term ‘sober,’ and the first time I try, it falls flat. During dinner one night, I catch a glimpse of the date on our family calendar and debated whether to mention the milestone to my husband. ‘In two days, I’ll have been sober a full month,’ I remark with a measured hint of pride. ‘I don’t know if you can really call it being sober,’ he says, considering the term. ‘It’s not like you were going on benders before you stopped drinking.’
It’s an offhand remark I know isn’t intended to minimize the achievement. My husband is my number one fan who has faithfully weathered many alcohol-related storms by my side. Still, I find myself bristling at the implication that just because my dependency wasn’t as severe as some people’s when they attempt sobriety, it is somehow a lesser accomplishment.
Without the buffer of alcohol, I feel like a toddler taking her first fumbling steps in an unfamiliar world. I have to learn how to socialize without the armor of a strong buzz at my disposal and remember how to entertain myself since drinking is no longer my go-to pastime. When I explain my choice to other people, I have to do it in a way that validates my experience but doesn’t call their drinking into question. It turns out announcing one’s sobriety makes a lot of people defensive about their own habits. After 6 months of sobriety, my friend group has shrunk considerably.
During the years I was still enamored with alcohol, it was easy to ignore the way it saturated the world around me. It didn’t seem out of place to be offered a beer at the end of a 5K or to attend a PTO-sponsored wine tasting. I thought nothing of the memes that implied the most expensive part of motherhood is all the wine you have to drink or the wine glasses that read, ‘Mommy’s in time out.’ I added bottles of ‘Mommy Juice’ or ‘Mad Housewife’ to my cart at the liquor store and smiled to myself because I was in on the same joke as everyone else. Now, it surprises me to realize the joke has stopped being funny.
The freedom and vitality that comes with sobriety are like nothing I’ve experienced. Hangovers are a thing of the past. I’m clear-headed, focused, and alert. My skin is the best it’s looked in years. I attend cookouts, birthday parties, and weddings, and find I like who I am without the social armor of alcohol. I sleep better at night, and sober s*x is infinitely more enjoyable. I’m a more engaged and present wife, mother, daughter, and friend without alcohol competing for my attention. I feel at home in this version of myself, the one whose outward-facing persona matches her inner reality. It takes a lot less energy to live without secrets.
I follow a slew of sober women on Instagram and begin reading articles and books about long-term sobriety. In their social media posts and within the pages of their books, these women talk about ‘the work’ of being sober and I assume abstaining from alcohol is the work to which they’re referring. But somewhere at the end of my first full year of sobriety, it clicks into place: the physical act of avoiding alcohol isn’t what they mean. The work is learning to face what I was trying to numb with alcohol in the first place.
And then I embark on the real work of sobriety: learning to trust my own intuition, setting firm boundaries on my time and energy, dealing with the trauma I’ve managed to sidestep my entire life. This work proves to be infinitely harder and more rewarding than the simpler act of not drinking.
I’m at a work training on the day of my 1-year sober anniversary. When the facilitator asks each of us to say something interesting about ourselves, I feel a bead of sweat slide between my breasts as I await my turn to speak. ‘I’m one year sober today,’ I tell the room in the steadiest voice I can manage, and it feels like plummeting off the high dive, revealing this secret to a roomful of colleagues. At the end of the session, a middle-aged man with kind eyes approaches me from across the room. ‘Congratulations on one year,’ he whispers. ‘It’s been 14 for me. Trust me, it only gets better as you go.’ It doesn’t surprise me to realize I believe him.
It’s been 3 years since I ended my relationship with alcohol and, most of the time, I forget it existed at all. Occasionally, I’ll see an old Facebook memory of me with a glass of wine in my hand, or a friend will mention a party from a decade ago and it will all come rushing back with surprising familiarity—the sensory experience of drinking, the person I was back then.
At first, recalling those events would give rise to a vortex of shame that threatened to swallow me whole. I wanted to put as much distance as possible between the current version of myself and the person I was in those days. But, with time, I’ve come to view those years with the grace they deserve, as nothing more than a starting place for the many iterations of the woman I will become. In the end, it was never going to be possible to love myself and the alcohol that was destroying me at the same time. I will always be grateful I had the opportunity to choose myself.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Melissa Mowry from Westerly, Rhode Island. You can follow her journey on Instagram or her blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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