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Giving Up Alcohol Made Everything Better. But Worse. But Better.

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Snapped on a random street in Tampa, Florida.

My last drink was three years ago today, on the patio at BookBar, in Denver. I was with friends and a mentor from grad school, who was in town for my MFA’s summer residency. I hadn’t planned to drink that night, and I hadn’t wanted to drink, which was something I had been saying to myself more frequently over the last couple of years.

I had been in Crested Butte the weekend prior, for a family wedding, and had once again drank more than I wanted to. I was still coming down from—and feeling anxious from—that bender when a friend brought a bottle of wine out to our table from the bar. It was a perfect, warm summer evening. I was surrounded by friends who I adored and who loved the things I loved—writing, literature, good conversation. A little bit of wine couldn’t hurt, I thought.

The thing with me though, is that it’s never a little bit. My switch is either on or off. There is

no in between. That night, after a few glasses of wine, I found myself walking down the street with my mentor and my good friends in search of a tattoo parlor because we had decided it was a good idea to get matching tattoos. Reminder, I was 39 at the time, not 21.

This was the moment, I think, that I decided I couldn’t drink anymore. Or, it was the last time I decided I couldn’t drink anymore. Somewhere in my inebriated brain I knew this wasn’t me, that this wasn’t who I wanted to be. It was similar to when I quit smoking in my twenties—after years of meandering down different paths, looking for an out, one day I just came to the end of the road. I was done. I had been done for years, but I was finally going to follow through.

“Addiction begins with the hope that something ‘out there’ can instantly fill up the emptiness inside.” - Jean Kilbourne

This quote is my drinking in a nutshell. It’s also my cigarette smoking, and my perpetual search for the ideal job, the ideal partner, and the ideal home. It’s my self-destructive attempts to live inside a perfect body, to have the perfect diet, and to be perfect at everything.

Without alcohol, I am now awake to all of this, and to the ways I am continuously looking outward for a way to feel whole inside. I am aware how this search has caused me to hurt people I would never want to hurt. And now, during pandemic time, when I don’t have the distractions of office life, social gatherings, or other obligations, I have lots of time to sit in and wade around every icky feeling I’ve ever had and every icky thing I’ve ever done.

Some days it goes okay. Some days I am crazy anxious, or depressed, or despairing. Or all of the above. Some days I still look for ways out—with Twitter, with Netflix. But the thing that continues to surprise me is that, no matter how bad it feels to sit in my own shit, I don’t want to drink. I don’t want to annihilate myself just to forget.

I see now that there is something for me in everything I’ve ever avoided, and that there is something on the other side of it too. My life is richer than it’s ever been, because rather than turning and running from whatever is chasing me, I’m slowly learning how to turn around and look directly at it. I’m learning how to let it in, how to let it be here, how to let it change me. Or how to take my power back from it.

In Untamed, Glennon Doyle writes, “Since I got sober, I have never been fine again, not for a single moment. I have been exhausted and terrified and angry. I have been overwhelmed and underwhelmed and debilitatingly depressed and anxious. I have been amazed and awed and delighted and overjoyed to bursting. I have been reminded, constantly, by the Ache: This will pass; stay close. I have been alive.”

Me too, to all of this. So much.

Three years into sobriety, I am alive in ways I never have been. I have boundaries, and I stick to them. I no longer tolerate people who treat me poorly. I no longer hate myself, or at least, most days I try not to. I don’t allow myself to be in situations that aren’t good for me or around people that don’t want what’s best for me. Before doing anything, I stop and ask myself if the thing I’m about to do is what I really want to be doing. Even if it isn’t, I’m no longer pretending it is.

I’ve written the book I always wanted to write. I’ve had difficult conversations with loved ones. I’ve shared the secrets that kept me locked up inside myself. I’ve learned how to listen and feel into my body and understand its endless messages. I’ve built authentic relationships. Even if some of them are challenging, they are honest.

And a lot of times I still look outside of myself for wholeness, but I catch myself sooner, and I know what I’m doing when I’m doing it.

My hard feelings did not stay forever, Doyle writes about sobriety,“and they did not kill me. Instead they came and went, and afterward I was left with something I didn’t have before. That something was self-knowledge.

Self-knowledge was the thing knocking on the back door of my mind that night three years ago, as I stood in line at the tattoo parlor. It was begging me not to go through with it, and for whatever reason, that night was the night I listened. I did not get a tattoo—at least, not until the next day, when I was sober, when I was in my right mind, when I could be present with my friends for the experience, when I could understand if it was me talking or the alcohol talking.

It’s always me talking now. That’s one of my favorite things about sobriety. So far.

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